Akeida #1: The Binding of Isaac - Hineini
In the Akeida, the binding of Isaac, which was just chanted so beautifully, we heard the word, “hineini”, three times –first before testing Avraham, (in Genesis 22:1) Elohim says to him “Avraham” and he answers “hineini”; (in 22:7) next, when Avraham takes the firestone and the knife, puts the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac, on Yitzchak, and the two walk off together without a ram, Yitzchak, wondering what’s going on, says “Father”, and Avraham answers “hineini”; and finally, (in 22:11) when Avraham picks up the knife to sacrifice Yitzchak, a messenger of YHWH calls to him, twice – “Avraham, Avraham”, and Avraham answers “hineini”.
“Hineini”. It’s an unusual word. It occurs only eight times in the Torah; and three of those are in the Akeida where it serves as a kind of refrain.
What does “hineini” really mean? It’s a short form for two words – hinei ani. Hinei is a very difficult word to translate into English. We usually use “here” or “here is”, but it also means “behold”, “look”, “now”! And ani, of course, means I or me. So, on the surface, “hineini” means “here I am”.
But when Elohim, Yitchak and the messenger of YHWH spoke or called to Avraham, they weren’t wondering where he was. They knew where he was physically. And when he answered, “hineini”, “here I am”, what Avraham was really saying was “I am ready”, “I am alert”, “I am attentive”, I am receptive”, “I am responsive”.
“Hineini” is about emotional and spiritual presence. Each time the word “hineini” appears in the Akeida, it is a turning point, a potentially life-changing moment, which requires decision, action, resolution. The first time, Elohim needed to know that Avraham was fully present. Avraham answered “hineini” and then Elohim gave him His instructions. The second time, Yitzchak needed to know that Avraham trusted Elohim to show him the sacrificial ram. Avraham responded “hineini” and then Yitzchak went with him. The third, final, and most awful time, just as Avraham picked up the knife, the messenger of YHWH called him twice, needing to let Avraham know that he passed the test. Avraham replied “hineini” and then he was shown the ram.
What does it mean to be “hineini”, to be spiritually present? Ready, alert, attentive, receptive, responsive in a situation that requires decision, action, and resolution? What does it mean to say “hineini” when we are called? To show up? To see ourselves at the beginning of a potentially life changing journey as we enter this New Year. To live a “hineini” life. “Hineini” is a statement of a promise.
There is one way I hope to live a “hineini” life this year. As many of you know, I am a rabbinic student. I retired from a long and enjoyable career as a lawyer in early 2010 and later that year began rabbinic studies. Call it my retirement project. Those of you who know me know that this is the path I’ve been on for a while. It just took me a long time to actually pursue it formally. I'm in the ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal ordination program.
As part of the ordination or smicha program, we’re required to go to “Smicha Week” every summer. I call it rabbi/cantor/rabbinic pastor camp. During the rest of the year we are a low residence program, but for this one week we come together, as many of us who can, from our various homes to study and pray together. We also eat and sing and schmooze and laugh and cry and do all those other things a community does together. It’s a very full and intense week.
Usually there are a variety of courses offered. Everyone takes two courses. One in the morning; one in the afternoon. This year, at the express request of the student association, they changed the program format. While we still took different courses in the morning, everyone had to take the same afternoon course – The Israel Engagement Program.
Why did the ALEPH student association ask for a program on Israel? It turns out that there are many, many communities who, just like Or Shalom, find it difficult, if not impossible, to talk about Israel. While many communities enjoy celebrating Israel, and many are comfortable listening to speakers talk about Israel, few are comfortable talking about Israel amongst themselves. And we, as rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors to be who seek to serve our communities in transformative ways, need to become confident and competent in navigating the crosscurrents of Israeli issues arising in our communities.
That’s a pretty tall order. And truth be told, we didn’t learn all of what we needed to in one week. There will be more. But here are some of the things that I learned at rabbi summer camp.
I learned that meaning is individually understood. I learned that all narratives are true. I learned in my morning course on Varieties of Zionism that Zionism is a complex idea and that there are many different kinds of Zionism. There’s religious Zionism, there’s messianic Zionism, there’s secular Zionism, including cultural, socialist and utopian Zionism, there’s rationalist/pragmatic Zionism, there’s militant Zionism, and more.
I learned that there is something a guest speaker calls the Zion cycle with which all Jews engage, whether or not they know it. It’s the flow toward and away from Israel which is at the heart of all Jewish experience. It is the “coming or going, yearning, ignoring, resisting or condemning.” (Dr. Bonna Haberman, Rereading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter, p. 16) What I really learned is that when someone talks about Zionism, I don’t actually know what they mean or where they are in their Zion cycle ... unless I enter into conversation with them and am “hineini”, spiritually present, to them and their experience.
I also learned from another of our guest speakers that there are least five distinct landscapes people refer to as Israel: an imagined land of deep magic, a covenantal land of relationship with the Holy Blessed One, a remembered land of exile, a lived land of the modern state, and an envisioned land of the future. What I really learned is that when someone talks about Israel, I don’t actually know what they mean ... unless I enter into conversation with them and am “hineini”, spiritually present, to them and their experience.
I also learned that there is value in having a conversation about having the conversation(s). I learned about sichah kedoshah, holy conversation, sacred conversation, the importance of having respectful and deep conversation and dialogue in a safe context. What I really learned is how truly difficult it is to be present in my life, in just about any context, never mind listening to the other and understanding them, even when it becomes hard for me ... especially when it becomes hard for me. What I learned is that to be “hineini”, to be present to someone in their narrative, even when I completely disagree with them, to engage in sichah kedoshah, in sacred conversation, is life changing, as being “hineini” was for Avraham.
Of course, this intense week of learning made me question on a very deep level where I am in my Zion cycle. Just like ebb and flow of the fundamental Jewish experience, I too have come and gone, yearned, and ignored, resisted, even condemned. I learned that it is important to be spiritually present, to be “hineini”, to myself in my Zion cycle. And where I am, where any of us are, in the Zion cycle depends on many, many complex factors. We may all be at different places in our Zion cycles. Some of us may have very strong opinions, some not; some of us may express our opinions, some not; some of us may not even know what our opinions are. Some of us may be very uncertain, like Avraham was during much of his life. What we learn from Avraham is the importance of being “hineini”, of being spiritually present in our Zion cycle.
So where am I in my Zion cycle? In a place of yearning for reconciliation. My vision is inspired by the relationship between Avraham’s sons. Avraham sent one of them away and never saw him again; he took the other to Mt. Moriah and they never spoke again. And their mothers certainly did not get along. But there is nothing in Torah that speaks of any animosity between Yitzchak and Ishmael. There is reason to believe that after the Akeida, Yitzchak went to live with Ishmael. Ishmael’s last known location was Be’er Lachai Roi (the Well of the Living One who Sees Me), the same place Yitzchak was living just before he returned to marry Rivkah. And after Avraham died, Ishmael and Yitzchak came together to bury him next to Sarah. Even if there were a falling out between the two houses they represent, at the end of their father’s life, they were reconciled; they were “hineini” to each other.
To quote another of our guest speakers this summer: “What kind of past we want to be for the future is a question for the present.” What does it take for us to hear the call, to do teshuvah, to turn and return, to reorient and renew ourselves in a way that enables us to respond, “hineini”? How do we be truly present, ready, alert, attentive, receptive, and responsive to those potentially transformative moments and conversations in our lives? How do we create the kind of past we want to be for the future?
There is guidance for us in תשע"ד, this taf, shin eyin, dalet new year. The last two letters of תשע"ד are עד – eid – witness. It we take just the first and the last two letters backwards, we find דעת – da’at - knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, understanding, common sense; logic; awareness, consciousness; דעת is also an aspect of YHWH in the Kabbalistic/sefirotic system. This year of תשע"ד, calls upon us to be like Avraham, to witness, to be “hineini” to the wisdom, of God, of ourselves and, through sichah kedoshah, of each other.
Hineini muchan um’zuman. Behold! Here I am, ready and prepared. May we all be blessed to live a “hineini” life this year, a life of readiness, of presence, of alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness, a life of spiritual readiness, a life of presence in The Presence.